1893 fire led to the formation of the West Bend Mutual Insurance Co.

By LINDA MCALPINE  - For the Daily News

August 10, 2017

After a fire nearly destroyed West Bend's business district in 1894, the West Bend Mutual Fire Insurance Co. was founded in this small building on Main Street, seen in this undated photo. Over the past 123 years, the firm, now known as the West Bend Mutual Insurance Company, has grown to be one of Washington counties largest employers and is located on a large campus at 1900 S. 18th Street. Photo courtesy of West Bend Mutual Insurance Co.
Submitted photo

The heart of West Bend nearly quit beating in 1893, putting the city’s continued existence in jeopardy.

According to local history author Dorothy Williams, in her book “SpirIt of West Bend,” flames were spotted by a night watchman shooting from a business on Main Street. It didn’t take long for the fire to spread to the mostly wood-frame buildings lining the east side of Main Street in the heart of the city’s business district.

To make matters worse, the city had no fire alarm system, so word of the impending disaster was spread person to person and, according to Williams, when firemen arrived at the scene, the heat was so intense, “they had to push the machinery way around and across the river, resulting in a dangerous delay.”

For a time, Williams wrote, it appeared the entire city might be engulfed by the spreading flames.

Help was summoned from places as far away as Fond du Lac and Milwaukee to fight the fire, which ultimately leveled more than a city block in downtown.

The blaze left the city’s businessmen with a troublesome problem. Another fire in West Bend a little more than a decade earlier had already raised the cost of fire insurance and the 1893 conflagration was going to push the expense even higher for local business owners.

Out of the ashes of that disaster came the birth of a company that, more than 120 years later, brought the name of the city to national and international attention. On April 13, 1894, the constitution of the West Bend Mutual Fire Insurance Co. was adopted, according to the website of today’s West Bend Mutual Insurance Co., 1900 S. 18th Ave., one of Washington County’s largest employers.

To fight the high cost of fire insurance in the aftermath of the 1893 blaze, local businessmen formed the company in which the insurance policyholders are the owners and any profits are returned to them as lower rates, according to the company’s website.

In 1991, the West Bend Mutual Insurance Co. moved from South Sixth Avenue in West Bend to a 150,000-square-foot building on sprawling campus on South 18th Avenue. Photo courtesy of the West Bend Mutual Insurance Co.  
Submitted photo

It was an idea that caught on in the devastated business community and just two weeks after the company was founded, its first policy was sold, according to the website.

The fledgling firm was in a small building on Main Street. As it continued to grow, it moved to a building at 300 S. 6th Ave., a structure that would eventually become home to the West Bend Art Museum and after the Museum of Wisconsin Art was built, was the headquarters of Delta Defense.

In 1991, West Bend Mutual Insurance moved to a 125,000-square-foot building on a sprawling campus at 1900 S. 18th Ave.

In 2006, a 214,000-square-foot addition was built due to company expansion. In 2008, the company kicked off its “Silver Lining” rebranding campaign in the media across the Midwest.

In 2015, the company, according to its 2016 annual report, reached a milestone when it recorded more than $1 billion in direct written premiums. The firm employs more than 1,200 people and is represented by 1,500 independent agency partners. It sells property and casualty insurance for homes, vehicles, businesses and personal property.